Five Things to Do Instead of Protesting the Research Works Act (HR 3699)

January 23, 2012

The Research Works Act ('RWA', or HR 3699) would reverse the US federal government policy of requiring recipients of National Institutes of Health (NIH) funds to deposit copies of their research papers into PubMed Central. It would also prevent the adoption of similar policies by other federal funding agencies going forward.

As a scientist who has participated in the authoring and review of a few scientific papers in closed, for-profit journals, I believe the Research Works Act should be allowed to pass, and that opposition to it focusses on the wrong problem, despite good intentions.

Fighting The Research Works Act Is Not Worthy of Your Time or Intellect

For those still willing to entertain an alternative perspective on this charged issue, consider:

  1. The NIH Public Access Policy in no way changes the copyright status of the works appearing on PubMed Central. Redistribution, duplication, or repurposing of works from PubMed Central could still make you liable to the usual copyright infringement penalties - even if you are the author.

  2. The NIH Public Access Policy is assembling an incomplete corpus of scientific works. Authors not supported by NIH, which includes most in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, and foreign authors - among others, are not subject to the NIH policy. Their works will generally never appear in PubMed Central. Although in certain situations having access to an incomplete corpus of scientific papers can be helpful, for the most part the practical utility is about on par with an Internet in which 4 out of 5 sites are blacked out.

  3. The Public Access Policy attempts to do through legislation what scientists should be doing for themselves - namely, completing the transition from pre-digital era of publication scarcity to the post-digital era of limitless, cheap publication capacity.

Fighting the Research Works Act is one of the least effective things a scientist could do to fix a deeply dysfunctional system of scientific publication. If you must place a "Stop RWA" banner on your Twitter avatar, or write your representatives about the "Evil Scientific Publisher Lobby" to feel better, by all means do it.

You'll accomplish little for science, however.

If on the other hand you want to pass onto the next generation a system of scientific communication that accelerates science rather than holding it back, you'll have to work much harder and take some rather unpleasant risks.

Government can't do it for us. It's our mess and we need to clean it up.

Five Ways to Effect Real Change

  1. Identify all journals in your field that: (1) require authors to transfer copyright as a condition of publication; and (2) publish any research works under terms that don't allow free redistribution and commercial repurposing of content.

  2. Submit no further manuscripts to the journals you identified in Step (1). Refuse all requests to review papers for these journals. Write letters to the editors of these journals explaining your actions. Publicize your actions through some public medium (e.g., blog or letter to the editor of a trade magazine).

  3. You'll still need to publish, of course. Find at least one journal in your field that allows you to retain copyright to your work and which makes its content available for redistribution and commercial repurposing. From now on, only submit articles to that journal and accept all reasonable requests to review papers from them.

  4. Identify the ten most influential scientists in your field. Find out which of them publish mainly or exclusively in the journals you identified in Step (1). Write a letter to each leader explaining the crisis in scientific publication, the harm they're doing to science and their group in continuing to publish in these journals, and the steps you've taken to solve the problem. Ask for their commitment to do the same as you have.

  5. You're very likely to get either no response from the leaders in your field or a negative one. If it should happen that you get a favorable response, ask this leader to publish an open letter to the editor of the appropriate journals explaining why their policies are detrimental to scientific progress.

Conclusions

The resolution to the scientific publishing crisis will not come through a government bailout in the form of public access policies. It will come from starving entrenched old-guard publishers of the only value they're currently adding to the scientific publication system - imprimatur. Regardless of whether you're a leader in your field or just a concerned scientist, imprimatur comes from the combined perceptions of you and your peers. Fortunately, perceptions can change.

The way to create a scientific publication system that advances the cause of science is to make it repugnant, ridiculous, and lonely to participate in one that doesn't.